What last week revealed about the President, Putin and Russia
by Garry Kasparov
Read original at the Daily News
<Retired Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as President Trump’s national security adviser last week, after reports confirmed that he had spoken to the Russian ambassador about lifting American sanctions and then lied about doing so. Flynn likely won’t be charged with any crime, but honestly, who wants a top security official who doesn’t realize that his communications with Russians would be closely monitored?
On Dec. 29, just hours after Obama had announced strong sanctions against Russia in retaliation for hacking related to the election, the FBI recorded Flynn’s conversation with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was likely attempting to reassure the Kremlin that everything would be fine once Trump took office a few weeks later.
Tellingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have accepted the proposal, as he announced the very next day that Russia would not answer Obama in kind by expelling American diplomats from Russia. The game continued a few hours later, when Trump tweeted about how smart Putin was for not retaliating.
The FBI recorded Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. (CLIFF OWEN/AP)
It was the first time in my memory that Putin has backed down like that, so for some reason he judged it in his best interests.
But when the Washington Post found out about the calls and raised this quid pro quo possibility a few weeks later, the Trump transition team quickly denied that Flynn had talked to any Russians about lifting sanctions, and then repeated this denial after the inauguration. Remarkably, even when leaks confirmed Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions and lied to Vice-President Mike Pence about it, Trump denied having heard any of these reports himself.
Oddly, Trump did not seem angry with Flynn over the snafu, as you might expect if one of your top appointees went rogue by having secret conversations with a hostile foreign power. We may never know if Trump told Flynn to reassure Russia about the sanctions, or if he later told Flynn to lie about it. The truth will only come out if and when Flynn is obliged to testify under oath.
But it does seem clear that Putin, at least, believed Flynn had the authority to speak for the incoming President, and acted accordingly.
Gen. Michael T. Flynn (left rear) sits next to Vladimir Putin during a 2015 event marking the 10th anniversary of RT (Russia Today) in Moscow. (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK, KREMLIN POOL PHOTO VIA AP)
Trump’s reaction to Flynn’s resignation made it sound like it had been demanded by someone else. Trump blamed his own intelligence apparatus for leaking the content of Flynn’s Russia contacts and blamed the media for revealing it. Turning to Twitter, his own personal Pravda, Trump defended Flynn as a “good man” who was being treated unfairly.
But then why did he ask Flynn to resign? If the leaked information was accurate, as Trump must have known it to be, how could it also be “fake news”?
Such obvious contradictions aren’t a problem for Trump, of course. They are his oxygen, his lifeblood. Much like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” Trump says as many as six impossible things before breakfast. It’s for others to try to reconcile them, to figure out if they represent new American policy, a complete fantasy or just whatever he saw on TV the night before.
If the accusations against Flynn were true, why did Trump call the reports “fake news”? (CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS)
The White House is hoping that the stories about the administration’s inappropriate contacts with Russia will end with Flynn’s exit, but this is unlikely. Like a matryoshka nesting doll, every revelation leads to another, and another, with Putin always at the center.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on friendly terms with Putin and was even awarded a friendship medal by the Russian dictator in 2012. Trump’s Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross has banking ties with Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg in Cyprus, one of the main hubs for laundering money siphoned out of Russia.
Trump’s Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross has banking ties with Viktor Vekselberg (c.), pictured at a signing ceremony in Tokyo this past Decemberr with (l. to r.) Vladimir Putin, Fanuc company Chief Executive Yoshiharu Inaba and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. (SPUTNIK/MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/KREMLIN VIA REUTERS)
Considering the wealthy stature of most of Trump’s cabinet appointees, it’s not a surprise that several of them would have conflicts of interest. It does seem like quite a coincidence, however, that so many of these conflicts have to do with Putin’s Russia. It would almost be reassuring to hear about a scandal involving one of Trump’s nominees and, say, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.
Instead, it’s Russian hacking, Russian phone calls and Russian banking.
During the campaign, it was worrying when several of Donald Trump’s top advisers turned out to have extensive Russian political and business connections. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign director for a time, for years worked for Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin’s puppet ruler there until he was literally chased out of town in 2014 and into exile in Russia.
Before joining Trump’s team, Flynn appeared on Putin’s propaganda network Russia Today and was even seated next to Putin at a Moscow party celebrating the channel.
Even more troubling, the candidate’s own rhetoric about Putin was inexplicably flattering. Why on Earth would an American presidential candidate, a Republican one no less, repeatedly express his admiration for a KGB dictator whose track record includes destroying Russian democracy, killing journalists and dissidents, and carpet-bombing civilians in Chechnya and Aleppo? Trump admires strength, and could not care less about democracy in Russia or anywhere else, but this was well beyond that.
When the election got underway, I expected Hillary Clinton to be a Russia hawk in order to blunt criticism of the failed “Russian reset” policy she helped orchestrate when she was President Obama’s secretary of state. Any normal Republican candidate would be expected to also condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, as well as the genocide he was perpetrating with his friend Bashar Assad in Syria.
Instead, we got Trump, and Trump never backed down from his shocking praise of Putin. This admiration was apparently mutual, at least judging by the contents of the Russian media, which is always a reflection of Putin. The Kremlin-controlled media has been as enthusiastic about Trump as it was hateful toward Hillary Clinton.
But that has started to change over the past few days. The new narrative is that Trump might be losing control and allowing “traitorous elements” inside the intelligence services to undermine him.
Unsurprisingly, this is quite similar to the line of attack selected by Trump himself. I noted last year that many of the Trump campaign’s talking points were nearly copy-pasted from Russian anti-American propaganda, a trend that has continued into his presidency. As for Trump himself, he keeps denying, with carefully chosen words, that he has any investments in Russia.
That may be the case, and we should see his taxes in order to confirm it, but at this point I’m more worried about what investments Russia may have in him.
If Flynn, Tillerson and others were on Putin’s wish list, seeing the general forced to resign might have come as a blow to the Kremlin.
But all is not lost, it seems. When Trump asked retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward to replace Flynn, Harward declined, saying that he wanted to be able to choose his own people. Trump had apparently insisted that Flynn deputy K.T. McFarland stay on, even though this stipulation resulted in the well-respected Harward declining the post.
Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland (2nd from r.) will be staying on. She’s seen with (l. to r.) Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Gen. Flynn at Jeff Sessions’ Feb. 9 swearing-in ceremony. (PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/AP)
One of McFarland’s claims to fame in recent years was her declaration in 2013 that Vladimir Putin should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Coincidence? Perhaps. A series of coincidences that all revolve around Putin? Well, I believe in coincidences, but I also believe in the KGB.
So what, you might reply. What is the problem if a new President wants to cozy up with Russia instead of traditional allies like Mexico, Canada and the United Kingdom? And doesn’t it make sense for a pro-Putin American President to hire pro-Putin people? For the sake of argument, let’s say that Trump isn’t compromised in some way, and that he is sincere in wanting to have good relations with Russia.
This leads to another problem, however, in that there is no domestic or geopolitical reason for the United States to ally with Putin’s gangster state, and many reasons why it’s a terrible idea.
On Thursday, I was in Washington, D.C., to speak before a Senate subcommittee hearing on U.S. leadership, or lack thereof, in global democracy and human rights. Sen. Marco Rubio invited me and dissidents from Saudi Arabia and Cuba to speak about the role the United States could play in promoting liberty abroad, and, more importantly, why it should.
The world has become less free and less safe over the past decade as America has retreated. The power vacuum left by Obama’s retrenchment — fully supported by the American people — has been occupied by Iran, by Russia, by China, and other nations with little interest in human rights or democracy beyond how to crush them.
This sea change in the global balance of power hasn’t made America any stronger, any richer, or any safer. Instead, it has undermined the perception of the United States as a force for good in the world while making it less safe.
President Donald Trump points to a hat at his “Make America Great Again Rally” at Orlando Melbourne International Airport on Saturday. (CHRIS O’MEARA/AP)
As I said in my testimony at the hearing, there is no weapon or wall that is more powerful for American security than America being envied, imitated and admired around the world, as it was when I looked at it from afar from the Soviet Union. Admired not for being perfect, but for having the exceptional courage to always try to be better.
This projection of American values is impossible if you are allied with the likes of Putin, who cares only for power. There is no common ground, no common interests, with Putin’s Russia. Fighting Islamist terror is the usual refrain, but it is as much a fantasy now as it was when it was tried by George W. Bush and then by Barack Obama.
Russia is a terror sponsor, not a terror fighter, and making any security deal with a country that is currently invading Europe is preposterous. If Trump really wants to protect American interests, he will instead throw all possible support behind Putin’s victims, like arming Ukraine and bolstering NATO for Putin’s inevitable next aggression.
That next step may come in the Balkans, in the Middle East, or closer to Russia, but it will come. Putin needs constant conflict to justify his hold on total power in Russia, and if he can’t boast of a grand bargain with the new American President, he will need something else to distract the Russian people from their disintegrating homeland.
When Putin makes his move, what will Trump’s response be? Will he stand with American allies and American principles, or will he continue to display more loyalty to the hostile dictator who just hacked the American presidential election? My worst fear is that there are no policies or principles in this White House at all, and that Trump himself has no idea what he will do. And so we will all have to wait for the next tweet, and the next leak, and that is no way to run a country.<>
Kasparov is the chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped.”